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Sundance ’20 Movie Review: “LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON ‘THE EXORCIST’ ” will compel you

Monday, February 3, 2020 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring William Friedkin
Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
Exhibit A Pictures

Not far into LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON “THE EXORCIST” (which just had its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival), the director of the 1973 horror landmark says he made many instinctive choices on that film “that don’t translate into a how,” and that any number of meanings have been interpreted within it that were not intended. He then spends over an hour disproving his own point, revealing the breadth of thought and craft that went into translating William Peter Blatty’s book and script to the screen.

There has been much written and discussed about THE EXORCIST in the close to 50 years since it first polarized critics, scandalized certain onlookers and scaled heretofore unheard-of box-office heights for horror. A good deal of those words have come from Friedkin, yet he has never sat down for as in-depth an exploration of its creation before. And he chose (as is discussed here) the right man to capture it: Alexandre O. Philippe, who has specialized over the last few years in taking deep dives into iconic fright films with the PSYCHO documentary 78/52 and MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN.

Both those previous movies used dissections of their subjects’ most famous scenes (the shower murder and the chestburster respectively) as jumping-off points to examine the inspirations and creative decisions behind the movies as a whole. Yet the auteurs who guided them were not alive or available to sit down for Philippe’s camera, which makes LEAP OF FAITH a different yet still engrossing experience. Friedkin, now in his 80s, remains razor-sharp in his recollections of a film he shot five decades ago (this doc could also have been called MEMORY), and just as winning a storyteller in front of the camera as he is behind it.

As its primary title suggests, LEAP OF FAITH: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN ON “THE EXORCIST” posits the possession saga as a spiritual drama rather than a horror film, as Friedkin cites influences ranging from Carl Dreyer’s religious family drama ORDET to various classical painters. And even as THE EXORCIST took screen shock and blasphemy beyond any boundaries the genre had seen before, the director used realism as his constant watchword, down to employing camera operator Ricky Bravo, who had followed and filmed Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution, to give a spontaneous feeling to the scenes. Throughout LEAP OF FAITH, Friedkin alternates theory with production specifics of this sort to give a fully rounded and fleshed-out account of the singular achievement THE EXORCIST is.

While he explains how THE EXORCIST reflects his own views on God, the devil and fate, Friedkin reveals ways in which he feels “the movie gods” smiled on the production, with chance meetings and situations steering it toward becoming the film it became. And he notes how he trusted his own faith in the face of doubt from others, from his ultimate choice of playwright/first-time screen actor Jason Miller as Father Karras—a role coveted by Blatty and first cast with Stacy Keach—to the Iraq-set prologue derived from the novel, which he insisted on retaining when everyone from Blatty himself (who left the sequence out of his first-draft script) to potential composer Bernard Herrmann claimed it was unnecessary. Friedkin’s reminiscences of his ill-fated attempts to bring Herrmann on board are especially juicy, as are his recollections of the extreme measures he and others took to get the right effects, from the director punching actual Jesuit teacher Father William O’Malley to get him to cry on camera as Father Dyer to Mercedes McCambridge’s torturous preparations to deliver the afflicted Regan’s vocals. Shots of Linda Blair delivering her possessed dialogue in her own, pre-dubbed voice are among the highlights of the supporting footage and images Philippe has assembled, along with rare behind-the-scenes photos (presented filmstrip-style) of Friedkin and his crew at work.

There’s less of this kind of supplemental material than seen in 78/52 or MEMORY, and that combined with LEAP OF FAITH’s focus on a single speaker means it has a less “cinematic” feel than its two predecessors. There are times when it gives the impression of watching the visual equivalent of an especially good audio commentary. Yet when the subject is as captivating as Friedkin talking about a horror film that still stands today, both literally and figuratively, as a religious experience, all Philippe had to do to keep any cinema fan watching was turn his camera on his subject and let the great stories roll.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.